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How Do We Define A Project?

There are five aspects of the project definition. Watch Professor Yael Grushka-Cockayne explain each aspect in more detail.
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Let’s talk about what we need to do when we just start off a project, we initiate a project. Well, we need to be thoughtful of how we define and organize it, before we even start any aspect of the planning. We’re going to talk about five aspects of the project definition. What is the goal? What are the three objectives, scope, time, and budget? And, what is the organization that we need to establish to get things going? Let’s start with the goal. So, what is the goal of a project? Well typically, we think about the goal as the higher level objective. What is that unique product, or service that we’re going to provide? Why are we even bringing the temporary organization together?
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And, why are we even engaging in this activity? That is the high level goal. Then, we dig into perhaps the most crucial part of the project definition, which is defining three objectives. Project management gurus like to call this the Holy Trinity of projects, the scope, the budget, and the time. The time, as the name might imply, has to do with the duration. Over what kind of time frame are we talking about executing our project? By when does it have to be finished? The scope is usually a description of requirements, qualities, specifications of a product that we are going to eventually deliver.
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And, the budget has everything to do with cost and resources that we have available to us for the purposes of this project. Now, the reason it’s called the Holy Trinity is because each one of these different objectives might pull in a different way. If we’re limited by time, and we really need to meet a certain deadline, we may need to think about giving up on one of the other two dimensions, or the other two objectives. Either in scope, by reducing it, or by finding more money to support an accelerated schedule. And so, when we think about any project’s three objectives, we always have to be thoughtful about the tradeoffs and the priorities among them.
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One way you might want to think about this is to consider which of the three objectives is constrained, is limited, we are definitely not able to exceed. Another aspect of thinking about the three objectives is if it’s not constrained, maybe we want to optimize it. We want to achieve a certain goal. We want to minimize it, or maximize it. And finally, where can we compromise? While we might have a specific time, maybe we can compromise, and delay things. And so, when we think about our three objectives, we want to map them out. Which one are we going to be constrained by? Which will we aim to optimize? And, which can we compromise on?
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Let’s take three examples on how we might think about these objectives, and the priorities among them. Recently, in the U.S. was the launch of a service called HealthCare.gov. Healthcare.gov is basically an exchange service online that allows healthcare insurance providers to be paired up with those who need healthcare insurance. When we think about a project of this scope, pairing up millions of individuals with thousands and millions of providers, the scope is probably going to be the domain in which we are constrained. We are limited by the scope, and we must meet those specifications. It could be that we have some room to compromise on the time.
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The exact launch date might not be specified in advance, and we can actually define it as we go along. And, in this case, budget might be thought of as something we would like to optimize, keep to the minimum as much as we can. Given that we are constrained by the scope that we need to achieve, and that we have some room to maneuver in terms of the timing of when we launch the site, by when we complete the project. A different type of project, with a different set of priorities, might be a wedding. Well, one thing we know is when the date is set, the date is fixed.
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And so, in a wedding setting, or in an event, time is the constraint. The project must take place at a specific date. If your wedding is like mine, typically the budget is where you end up compromising in order to optimize on your scope. To provide as many thrills, and bells, and whistles, and to get that band that you really want by the constraint deadline.
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A third example, again, different domain, is how do we think about a project that has to take up new product development, build a new facility, and deliver a product to the shelf of a supermarket, for instance? In this case, a juice product. Start from an empty facility all the way to shelf. Well, in this case, the priorities are different. We are constrained by the scope, in the sense, that we need to meet the specifications associated with delivering a product that will be bought and consumed by individuals at a supermarket. We might be able to optimize on time, and try and reach that shelf as soon as possible.
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The competition is fierce, and we want our product out there as quickly as we can. And so, the budget is where we are going to compromise, and we might need to end up finding additional investors, or find additional ways to support ourselves, in order to get that product to the shelf by the designated time.
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So, these were a few examples on how we might set about defining a project. And, how crucial it is to identify up front, which of our objectives we’re going to be constrained by, where we can compromise, and what are we going to try and optimize. It’s critical to think about these dimensions. Because, the decision making throughout the entire life cycle of the project, from planning to execution, will be governed by these priorities that we’ve set up, set up, up front, when we define the project.

Professor Yael Grushka-Cockayne discusses in this video initiating a project and five aspects of the project definition. As you watch this video think about a project you are currently working on. This can be a project at home, work, or elsewhere. Next, think about how you would respond to the questions below.

What is the goal of your project?
What is the scope of your project?
What is the time for your project?
What is the budget for your project?
What is the organization you need to establish to get things going?

In thinking about these five aspects, what are some of the trade-offs and priorities among them?

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Fundamentals of Project Planning and Management

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